Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby? Maybe Not.

March 16th, 2010 | Charlotte Fishman

Is it legal to fire a front desk clerk for not being “pretty enough”? Not in Iowa. Last Monday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a trial judge’s decision and ordered Lewis v. Heartland Inns of America to trial.

Brenna Lewis was a front desk clerk at Heartland Inns in Ankeny, Iowa. She was promoted to the day shift, sight unseen, after enthusiastic recommendation from previous managers. Once on the job, Lewis’ loose-fitting clothing and unisex appearance caused Director of Operations Barbara Cullinan to express reservations about whether she was a “good fit.”

Lewis wore short hair, no makeup and sported an “Ellen DeGeneres look.” She was “tomboyish,” friendly, and well-liked by customers. Cullinan preferred a pretty “Midwestern girl look” on the day shift. She fired the manager who refused to reassign Lewis and demanded that Lewis undergo a videotaped “second” interview to keep her job. A distraught Lewis objected to the second interview, questioning whether it was lawful to require one just because of her appearance. Three days later she was fired.

When Lewis sued Heartland for sex discrimination, the company countered that Lewis was terminated for “thwarting” the interview procedure and exhibiting “hostility” to Heartland’s policies. The trial judge dismissed the case. Lewis appealed. In January, a three judge panel ruled in Lewis’ favor. On March 8, the full court denied Heartland’s request for rehearing, and ordered the case back to jury trial.

In some ways Lewis’ victory is not surprising. Over twenty years ago, in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ann Hopkins, a hard-charging and aggressive manager denied partnership despite outperforming all other candidates in her year. Hopkins was told that future success at the firm would depend upon her learning to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear make-up, have her hair styled, and wear jewelry.”

The Court held that unless Price Waterhouse could prove that it would have made the same decision without reference to gender stereotypes, Hopkins was entitled to prevail on her sex discrimination claim because “we are ‘beyond the day’ when an employer could evaluate employees by … insisting that they matched the stereotype associated with their group.”

But are we? Consider this: Had Heartland Inns turned Cullinan’s personal preference for pretty women into a formal job requirement, the case might well have gone the other way.

In 2006, the Ninth Circuit received a great deal of notoriety for its decision in Jespersen v. Harrah’s Operating Co., 444 F.3d 1104 (9th Cir. 2006). The famously liberal court ruled not once, but twice in favor of Harrah’s casino, after it terminated bartender Darlene Jespersen for refusal to comply with its “personal best” appearance code. The code, which included both gender-neutral and gender-specific requirements, mandated “big hair” and a daily makeup regime for women.

Jespersen, a highly regarded 20-year employee, felt degraded by makeup. The business of a bartender is to mix drinks, assess sobriety, and maintain order. Jespersen argued that wearing makeup interfered with the deft personal touch and sense of authority she relied upon to perform those functions. Unimpressed, the Court held that her “personal preference” did not trump Harrah’s “personal best” grooming policy.

Employers, particularly in the service industry, adopt gender-specific appearance standards for competitive advantage, and defend them on grounds of customer preference. Fortunately, the law already imposes limits on this “business case” for discrimination. “Customer preference,” once a serious barrier to hiring minorities and women, was struck down long ago. “Competitive advantage,” the rationale for requiring stewardesses to parade around in hot pants, was rejected with the tart observation that the business of airlines is to fly passengers safely, not to sell sex.

Even if the required “look” is not overtly sexy, enforcing an idealized standard of feminine attractiveness increases the salience of gender over competence. This can undermine the authority of women whose jobs involve controlling the activities of others: police officers, construction supervisors and – yes — bartenders and flight attendants. While there may be rare situations in which idealized gender-specific appearance is a “bona fide occupational qualification,” the essence of most jobs is providing a service, not fulfilling a fantasy.

Yes, we have come a long way, but sadly, we are not “beyond the day” when employers can enforce gender stereotypes. It should not matter whether a stereotype-driven termination is the result of an individual supervisor’s preference or a company-wide appearance policy, but it does. This is wrong. Courts should know better than to give the green light to gender stereotypes “dressed up” as formal job requirements. If this trend is not reversed, and soon, the resulting effect on equal employment opportunity will definitely not be pretty.

Image: Pick UPAbout the Author: Charlotte Fishman is a San Francisco attorney, and Executive Director of Pick Up the Pace, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to identify and eliminate barriers to women’s advancement in the workplace.

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